Student Asks Vanderbilt to Uphold Free Speech Promises

September 3, 2010

In a letter to the editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler student newspaper, Vanderbilt University student Kenny Tan highlights the dissonance he sees, as an incoming freshman, between Vanderbilt’s free speech promises and the university’s Community Creed. Tan, who attended our CFN Conference this July, quotes the Student Handbook first:

The Student Handbook states: “The University is committed to providing opportunities for the free and open exchange of ideas both inside and outside the classroom. It will safeguard the undisturbed, orderly expression of diverse views and opinions as well as the opportunity for their careful examination.” …

Of this provision, he writes:

These promises could be interpreted to mean that everyone is guaranteed the same rights as would be allowed to attendees of a public university, where students are guaranteed protection by the First Amendment.

Tan then contrasts this statement with the Community Creed:

Among the elements of the Community Creed are civility and caring. According to the creed, civility is “the genuine respect for the rights of others. We value constructive disagreement and are mindful of the potential impact of our words and actions.” Had the word “and” been a “but,” the problem with this definition would be more obvious. This statement implies restrictions on free speech that might have a negative emotional impact; even so, such speech needs to be protected.

The result of this ambiguity, he writes, is confusion for students, forcing them to “guess at what is allowed and not allowed,” creating a chilling effect on campus speech. The code also “implies that people have a right not to be offended,” a mindset that encourages students to respond to controversy with calls for censorship rather than debate.

As Tan notes, Vanderbilt can easily resolve the discord in favor of students’ rights by clarifying that the Community Creed is not mandatory:

“A private university like Vanderbilt may lawfully make [civility] mandatory for students, but to be consistent with the university’s admirable promises of free speech, these values should remain aspirational in nature.”

When he came to Vanderbilt, Tan was excited to join a community that, as he writes, “prides itself on providing students and faculty with an academic environment of free expression.”  Vanderbilt should listen to his advice and uphold that promise.

Schools:  Vanderbilt University